Several of Florida’s 67 supervisors of elections are asking voters to cast their ballots by mail for the Aug. 18 primary and Nov. 3 general election.
Escambia County’s supervisor is among them.
Unlike some other states wrestling with mail-in balloting, David Stafford says Florida has been ahead of the curve for some time.
“Florida has been what’s called a ‘no excuse now, vote-by-mail state’ for years,” said Stafford. “We’re a very, what I would call ‘mature’ state when it comes to handling large numbers of vote-by-mail ballots.”
During the last two election cycles – 2016 and 2018 – the electorate in Florida broke down to about a third of them casting ballots by mail; a third voting early, and a third at their precincts on Election Day.
“Without a doubt, you’re going to see that vote-by-mail portion take a significantly larger chunk of the pie, if you will, of how voters are casting their ballots,” said Stafford.
Stafford dug deeper into past election history, canvassing four presidential primaries in Florida from 2008 to the one last month. He found that mail-in voting – which had been 17 percent in 2008 and a point higher four years later – jumped to 26 percent in 2016 and then to around 38 percent this year. He gives two reasons:
“Number one, even though it was fairly early in the COVID situation, we did have a large influx of vote-by-mail requests coming in, fairly late for people that just didn’t feel comfortable going to the polling place,” Stafford said. “One of the other reasons is at the end of 2019, we actually sent out a countywide mailing; a simple way to put in that request.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Postal Service is going through some financial hard times. Earlier this month President Trump threatened to veto the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid Act, if the legislation contained any money to bail out the postal service. Stafford is confident that cooler heads will prevail.
“It’s tough to chase the bouncing ball when you’re talking about these policy discussions up in Washington,” said Stafford. “But I have to believe that there’s going to be a postal service in place through the 2020 election and beyond, because there’s a recognition that mail voting is going to play an integral part in our national election.”
There are several uncertainties about how the coronavirus could affect voting. In Leon County, Supervisor of Elections Mark Earley says more than 60 percent of his poll workers are over 60 years old -- the age group most susceptible to the disease. Stafford says that’s a nationwide issue.
“That’s certainly a valid concern and we’re looking at all kinds of contingencies,” Stafford said. “And one of the advantages to moving to a sort of ‘vote center’ type concept is, you wouldn’t have to recruit fewer workers, for that matter, and be able to space it our appropriately.”
The vote-by-mail push comes following last month’s primary, when some polling locations in Florida were unable to open because poll workers didn’t show up. But, Stafford concedes that 100 percent vote-by-mail, for now, remains a bridge too far.
“We’re certainly planning for a huge spike in vote-by-mail, but also think there’s going to have to be some form of in-person voting,” said Stafford. “Florida, just in the nature of how densely-populated we are – something like a move towards an entirely vote-by-mail system is not something that you can rush in the course of 4-5 months.”
Longer ballots and larger turnout are expected in August and November, which would make the problem worse if it happens again. When asked about the idea of onlne voting, Escambia County’s David Stafford says for now, online balloting applies to U.S. citizens overseas.
“At some point these voters are going to have to be taken care of; and if we already have electronic delivery materials that’s been in place for years, it’s just where you get to that electronic return, or online return of balloting materials,” said Stafford. “That’s when that risk profile really spikes up.”
For more information on voting by mail, contact your county’s supervisor of elections office, or visit their website.